Scientists identify maize killer sweeping Rift

Kenyan scientists have finally identified the unknown disease that has destroyed thousands of acres of maize crops in Kenya's breadbasket area of Rift Valley threatening millions of Kenyans with starvation.
Scientists from KARI say the maize disease is called maize lethal necrotic (MLN), a viral infection made up of two viruses, maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus.
The disease is new in the country but has been reported in other parts of the world. Already, according to government estimates, the disease has caused the loss of 6,000 tonnes of maize and affected 3,200
hectares of farmland.
The disease is spread by insects and wind from one plant to another. "We have noticed that the disease mainly affects maize crop at early stages and farmers should be on the look out of the disease's symptoms whereby the crop turns brown in colour before wilting,” said Lee Kung'u from the Ministry of Agriculture.
The disease is also characterised by discolouring of leaves at the fourth week, mottling, flecking of leaves at tasseling and the failure of cob development. The affected plants also turn poisonous and cannot be consumed by livestock.
The disease, which began in the South Rift, has now been spotted in certain areas of Central Kenya, creating new worries on its fast spread. Already experts are predicting that maize harvests this year
may drop by more than 20 per cent following the outbreak.
The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service has recommended that maize crops affected by the new disease should be destroyed to avoid the further spread of the viruses. More than 150,000 farmers have so far been affected and agriculture officers have already warned of reduced
Farmers want the government to take measures to deal with the disease, which scientists says may affect the maize crops for about three years before its effectively dealt with. Rift Valley is the highest maize producing area in the country with Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu leading, although these two counties have not yet been affected. The country normally harvests about 32 million bags, but agricultural experts fear the disease will cause a heavy drop in production.

MLN, which began in the Rift Valley district of Bomet in September 2011, coupled with an erratic supply of maize seeds and fertilisers, may mean more expensive maize imports, say food security analysts.
At present, maize supply is already tightening and prices rising.

“Between April and mid-May, maize prices have increased by 10-25 percent in markets situated within the surplus producing areas including Chwele, Kitale, Eldoret, and Nakuru… In the major urban markets, maize prices are up to 25 per cent above what they were in 2011, and 40- 90 per cent above the five-year average,” reported the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

With the disease now being blamed on poor planting materials and fake seeds, experts are also urging farmers to purchase planting materials such as seeds from credible institutions to avoid buying contaminated seeds, which could spread the disease further.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter